My sense is that it’s more than the associated fears that hold us back. We can’t talk about fear without also discussing our approach to risk. Risk taking means taking action without certainty of the outcome.
No career change will magically materialize out of the blue. It will take effort, extending into the unknown, living with uncertainty, and often experiencing confusion and mini realizations along the way.
It will also mean digging deeper and understanding that work provides women with more than money. It provides self-esteem, independence, a sense of identity and is closely tied with how we see ourselves.
In considering the issues of most relevance to women and career change, we reflect on how many successful women don’t make the move because of two significant issues: they have been defined by the success of their work and they need financial security.
Elizabeth Perle McKenna, author of ‘When Work Doesn’t Work Anymore: Women, Work and Identity’ believes “Meaningful work and a balanced life are deep rooted and genuine human needs. Like any needs they can be repressed or ignored for years at a time, but sooner or later they’re going to assert themselves”.
In the end women who have undergone a career change note that it was not painless, it was often messy, but more importantly the process was more about changing themselves than changing jobs.
So why is this so… why do most if us associate so strongly with our working identity?
Our working identity is made up of many factors reflecting our many selves. It may be tangible and defined by the things we do, our past experience and then further reinforced by the company we keep.
I believe that to have a successful career transition women must reflect not only on their desires, abilities, preferred working environments and assets. They must also take time to reflect on why they want the change and thus explore themselves and on the possibilities that change creates.
For midlife or mid career professional women the need for change can also be more to do with a natural psychological need for change during this period.
Carl Yung , Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, refers to our development at midlife as ‘individuation’, where we start to understand our whole being, and bring together both our conscious and unconscious selves. As we move through this period we spend time reassessing our goals, becoming more aware of our Self and of the relationship between change and personal growth.
Robyn Vickers-Willis in ‘Navigating Midlife: Women Becoming Themselves” describes the distinct phases we move through from a time of insecurity and uncertainty to one where we create meaning and are more aware of an ease within ourselves and excitement about life.
In ‘Sweet Spot Careers’, I relate this directly to the value and need to explore, where exploring can turn into discovery when we dedicate time and effort into its pursuit. But above all, while reflection and planning are important, action is vital. By action I mean testing reality and different parts of ourselves, networking with different groups and trying on new versions of ourselves.
It’s also interesting that women who have made a successful career transition, have also recognised their close association between work and identity. In changing careers, roles or even jobs, for some, this is about letting go of how they have been defined by others and themselves.
Elizabeth Perle McKenna believes that “because success itself has become our identity, to diminish any part of our profession is equal to diminishing ourselves. We depend on work to define us”.
But as our priorities shift so too does the way we see ourselves. It becomes less about the identity we associate with on the business card and more about our values, families, friends and how we prioritise our time.
“Whether propelled by outer circumstances or inner turmoil, women are stopping and reassessing what is important to them, and what they can do about it before it’s too late” says Perle McKenna.
With this recognition for the need for change also comes the fear, as we realise that we’ll need to confront and even reject the value system we’ve lived with up until now.
Perle McKenna goes on to explain that we need to face the “demons of economic insecurity, loss of status and loss of identity. We have, after all, a world around us that exerts tremendous pressure on us to stay where we are and keep doing what we’ve doing”.
The importance we place on money and our relationship to it can hinder or advance our career change process. We can reflect on how we define the necessities in life that money provides. The effect of consumption distorts what we need, and we consume more, nearly double what we did forty years ago. If we spend more than we make, the debt keeps us in ‘need’.
For women, having money promises security and controlling money means freedom. In making career choices and in striving for peace of mind, we need to understand the significance and value we place on this association.
This dilemma does on one side take sacrifice and a willingness to make trade offs. On the other side it provides an opportunity to take stock of our lives and draw up a new agenda for ourselves.
Work will never work unless we change the way we value success and the way we judge our progress towards it. If we don’t start with our values, any changes are merely cosmetic.
As Perle McKenna so eloquently says “This is why it is so critical that women replace their emotional, psychological and even financial dependence on our work identities with a more porous, broad, and flexible system of identifying themselves. One that prizes balance over attainment, meaning over status, inclusion over hierarchy, the product over the process. Only by shifting to these values can we create a new picture of a successful life that allows for priorities to shift over time as needs dictate. One in which work plays a key role but not an exclusive one”.
Elizabeth Perle McKenna; When Work Doesn’t Work Anymore: Women, Work and Identity, Published by Hodder and Stoughton 1997
Robyn Vickers Willis; Navigating Midlife: Women becoming themselves, Published by Wayfinder Publishing 2002
Maria Simonell, Sweet Spot Careers: A Practical and Creative Guide to a Successful Midlife Career Transition”, 2014